Road Bond Passes with Overwhelming Support Amid Low Turnout

Oct 8, 2017

When all was said and done this weekend, the Secretary of State’s office reported about one in ten voters showed up to polls, and about 70 percent of those were in favor of passing Governor Jim Justice’s road bond.

West Virginia voters were asked to approve the sale of $1.6 billion in general obligation bonds in this year’s special election. It was the only thing on the ticket. The bonds are part of Governor Jim Justice’s roughly $3 billion roads infrastructure spending plan. The plan began as a package of bills to support some road repairs and bond repayments during this year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers raised the wholesale gas tax by three and a half cents a gallon, increased the vehicle sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and hiked the motor vehicle registration fee from $30 to $50.

Voter turnout on the bond issue was exceptionally low - as predicted based on low early voting turnout. Unofficial turnout at the polls was 10.94 percent, according to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.

In Berkeley County, only about two percent of voters came out to vote early (1,300 of about 74,000 registered voters). Chief Elections Officer Donnie Plotner said many people didn’t start hearing about pros and cons of the bond until the week leading up to election day.

“For the people in Berkeley County, they didn’t even know there was an election going on. They felt there wasn’t enough promotion of it, and enough detail behind it. We’ve had a lot of people that said, ‘I didn’t even know there was an election,’ and, ‘What am I voting for?’ So they’re very confused,” Berkeley County Chief Elections Officer Donnie Plotner said.

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What’s Next

“The fact that it did pass has a lot to do with the recognition that West Virginia does need to invest in infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure to the state’s economy, as well as the recognition that we do have poor quality of roads,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

He says what comes next really remains to be seen.

“This is a lot of money - a big increase in the state’s debt.”

O’Leary explains that the bond effectively doubles the state’s debt, which may well squeeze other already-stressed budget priorities, like education and health care. Another concern is that the interest on the bond amounts to about $500 million West Virginians will pay on top of the $1.6 billion. And since a lot of the projects identified in the roads plan are new - as opposed to repair projects - there’s some concern about ballooning costs of maintenance.

O’Leary says one thing that seems certain: the passage will render any tax reductions for residents dangerous for the foreseeable future – something for which the Republican legislature has been pushing hard.

He also says, a lot of work will have to go to out-of-state workers to accommodate so many projects – and transparency with how funds are spent will be more important than ever going forward.

Morgantown resident Linda Jacknowitz voted in the election this weekend. She said she understands people are worried about the state taking on new debt, but still supported the road bond.

“Considering debt is very important. However, I think in terms of worrying about where West Virginia will be in 25 years if we don’t go ahead and invest in ourselves is a bleak picture,” she said. “And I think investing in ourselves is a way to show external funding sources they should also invest in us.”

Reactions

Justice said during a Saturday night press conference that voters spoke loud and clear.

“I can’t thank the voters enough,” he said. “They’ve spoken with a mandate and they’ve spoken that they want jobs and they want opportunity and they want change.”

When asked what he’d say to those still opposed to his roads plan, Justice alluded to detrimental hidden agendas. He went on to say he’ll likely call a special session soon to make changes in law to support his roads plan.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael has also long supported the road bond. He issued the following statement Saturday night while ballots were still being counted:

“I am thrilled that the West Virginians who chose to vote on this critical issue put the greater good of this state first and said yes. With the passage of this amendment, we have taken a tremendous step in moving West Virginia forward. Soon, our state will see more jobs and better roads, and most importantly, we will see these benefits without any additional taxation of our citizens. I am excited about what the future holds as we develop a strong, safe, and reliable transportation infrastructure. We have worked for three years in the Senate to promote economic development and job creation in our great state. I am proud of the voters who have recognized those efforts and have given this state the chance to truly thrive.”

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore also weighed in on the issue, taking a more critical tack:

“I want to commend our Democratic Legislators and members of our Democratic Executive Committee for their work in doing the right thing for West Virginia. It would have been very easy for us to not support the road bond after Jim Justice abandoned our Party, but two wrongs don't make a right. The Republican Party and the Mountain Party worked hard to defeat the bond but as Democrats and West Virginians, we will always stand behind good jobs, good roads, and hardworking families.”

Justice said he will call a special session soon to make some changes in law to support his roads plan.

According to a statement from Secretary of State Mac Warner, canvassing will be held by each county beginning Friday, October 13th. During canvassing, the provisional ballots, absentee ballots mailed before but received after election day, and any other ballot issues will be considered for inclusion in Saturday's results.

Liz McCormick contributed to this story.